Wednesday 13 February 2019

Finding Stories in Legends: The Anglo-Saxon World, by Annie Whitehead #History #AngloSaxons #HistoricalFiction @ALWhitehead63

Finding Stories in Legends:
 The Anglo-Saxon World
By Annie Whitehead

A royal son, in defiance of his frail and useless father, released the king’s prisoner from jail and married her, before leading the kingdom in an heroic fight against the invaders. A king went to war because his sister had been mistreated. A princess was accused of killing her little brother and her punishment was that her eyeballs fell out. A teenaged king was found in bed on his wedding night with his wife and her mother…

These are all tales worthy of books. Even Films maybe. But they’re tales of Anglo-Saxons, so you might not have heard of them. 

It’s less true now, thanks to The Vikings TV series, The Last Kingdom – TV series and books - but the Anglo-Saxon period has at times suffered from a lack of interest. 

But why? A bit of shameless name-dropping here: Over lunch one day, Fay Weldon told me that she thought it had a fair bit to do with the costumes. The Tudors, for example, had exquisite clothing and accurate paintings which can be used to reproduce the garments for telly shows. The Anglo-Saxons left only drawings which lacked perspective and detail and yes, it’s fair to say that in comparison, their clothes were a shade less flamboyant.
There’s a big line, too, drawn across history and making a cultural and documentary barrier: 1066. For a long time, the Anglo-Saxons were separated from us by that line, seen as a people from a far-off, almost mythical world. The ‘Dark Ages’ is now termed the ‘Early Medieval’ period but that tends to mean that the Anglo-Saxons are presumed to have had the same medieval ideas as the Normans, when in fact their laws, particularly relating to women, were a lot more enlightened.

I’m a historian, so I like to sift and sieve, trying to tease the facts from a jumble of chronicles written by people who had a political agenda and told the stories from their own point of view. But I’m an author, too – so I like to get behind the facts and envisage the real people.

From Bede's Lives of St. Cuthbert, showing King Athelstan

Scenarios described in the opening paragraph have already formed the basis of two of my novels. 

Penda was a pagan warlord who fought against the Northumbrian kings. Bede, a Northumbrian, naturally enough didn’t have much in the way of pleasant things to say about him. But tucked away in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People are a couple of nuggets about Penda: he was tolerant of Christians and he went to war because a neighbouring king repudiated his wife, who happened to be Penda’s sister. Two short sentences allowed me to build up a picture of a man whose motives for war were much less clear-cut and not necessarily driven by bigotry. A man loyal, above all else, to his family. This man intrigued me.

The Venerable Bede

To miss out on Anglo-Saxon history is to miss out on a treat. Such a wealth of stories, such an array of characters…

That three-in-a-bed romp? Well, it may or may not be completely true, but as an opening chapter it served me well. The alleged incident caused widespread fall-out and shaped the politics of tenth-century England. And the novel it inspired also includes the next king’s wife who just happened to be accused of murdering an abbot, colluding with the king in the killing of her first husband, oh, and that of her stepson too. Those women made rather sumptuous ‘bookends’! Behind the fruity gossip though, were a young woman whose reputation was besmirched, and a queen who had to give up two of her children when she married the king, and then lost another when he was still an infant.

King Edgar, from the New Minster Charter, 966.

Another woman whose life story packs a metaphorical punch is Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. She ruled a country in all but name and was instrumental in holding back the Viking onslaught. She probably never wielded a sword yet her story is fascinating none the less. How did she, who was only half-Mercian and a woman, manage to command the loyalty of the Mercian troops? I’ve pondered the paradox of her status many times, in fiction, nonfiction, and even on the ‘stage’.
I still have questions. Why was this remarkable woman so little remarked upon? Her leadership of a kingdom, whether as a politician or a sword-swinging warrior-woman, was unprecedented. Yet the chroniclers either took this completely in their stride, or, with a couple of exceptions, ignored it all together. I couldn’t not write her story.

Æthelflæd, from a 14th-century genealogical chronicle

All of my fiction happens to be set in Mercia, the ancient kingdom of the Midlands. So, having written three novels, I realised that I had enough material, along with my original undergrad notes and research books, to undertake the telling of the story of Mercia itself. Here I was able to search for the truth behind such legends as:

Offa – not just a dyke-builder but a major player on the international stage, getting himself involved in a trade war with the emperor, Charlemagne. (Okay, there was a little bit of murder, too…)

Also from Mercia were Lady Godiva - did she really ride naked through the streets of Coventry? – and Eadric Streona, whose name means ‘The Grasper’ and who turned round and changed sides so often during the wars with Cnut that he must have got positively dizzy. In the end, Cnut ordered that Eadric should be paid what was owed him, and one can imagine how he then drew his finger across his throat as he gave the command.
Statue of Lady Godiva in Coventry.

Exciting as these tales are, the Anglo-Saxons were so much more than this. Their world was not one of ‘sword and sorcery.’ They weren’t illiterate heathens (well, Penda was, but this didn’t make him bad); they were real people, whose laws were sophisticated and whose metal-working skills were exquisite. (Think Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo treasures.) Their love of tales and drama means that there is a wealth of material from which to draw. Some of those tales are indeed lurid, but it doesn’t take much scratching to reveal the human stories underneath. 

Sometimes it is merely a footnote: the main character of one of my novels had no recorded wife. But a woman is mentioned as having been deprived of property by his successor. Was she his widow? If they weren’t married, did they have a relationship? Writing historical fiction means being guided by the facts, but sometimes it requires reading between the lines, too. Look closely and there you’ll find the stories.

To Be A Queen

This is the true story of Aethelflaed, the 'Lady of the Mercians', daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It is the tale of one family, two kingdoms and a common enemy. Born into the royal house of Wessex at the height of the Viking wars, she is sent to her aunt in Mercia as a foster-child, only to return home when the Vikings overrun Mercia. In Wessex, she witnesses another Viking attack and this compounds her fear of the enemy. She falls in love with a Mercian lord but is heartbroken to be given as bride to the ruler of Mercia to seal the alliance between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. She must learn to subjugate her feelings for her first love, overcome her indifference to her husband and win the hearts of the Mercians who despise her as a foreigner, twice making an attempt on her life. When her husband falls ill and is incapacitated, she has to learn to rule and lead an army in his stead and when he subsequently dies, she must fight to save her adopted Mercia from the Vikings and, ultimately, her own brother.

Alvar the Kingmaker

In 10th Century England,nobleman Alvar knows that securing the throne for the young and worthy King Edgar will brand him as an oath-breaker. As a fighting man, he is indispensable to the new sovereign, but his success and power gain him deadly, murderous enemies amongst those who seek favour with the king. Alvar must fight to protect his lands, and his position, and learn the subtle art of politics. He must also, as a man of principle, keep secret his love for the wife of his trusted deputy. Civil war erupts, and Alvar once again finds himself the only man capable of setting a new king upon the throne of England, an act which comes at great personal cost. His career began with a dishonourable deed to help a good king; now he must be loyal to a new king, Aethelred, whom he knows will be weak, and whose supporters have been accused of regicide. Can he bring about peace, reconcile with his enemies, and find personal happiness, whilst all the time doing his duty to his loved ones? And what of the fragile Queen, who not only depends upon him but has fallen in love with him? Aelfhere (Alvar) of Mercia was known to the chroniclers as the "The blast of the mad wind from the Western territories" but also as "The glorious earl." This is his story.

Cometh the Hour - Tales of the Iclingas Book 1

In seventh century England, a vicious attack sets in motion a war of attrition which will last for generations.

Four kings, connected by blood and marriage, vie for the mantle of overlord. Three affect to rule with divine assistance. The fourth, whose cousin and sister have been mistreated and whose friend has been slaughtered, watches, and waits.

He is a pagan, he is a Mercian, and his name is Penda.

By his side is a woman determined to escape her brutal past. She aids his struggle against his treacherous brother and their alliance founds a dynasty with the potential to end injustice and suppression, if only they can continue to stand together...

A story that spans generations, and travels from Sutton Hoo to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and back to the buried treasure of Staffordshire, this is the first volume of the tales of the Iclingas, the family who ruled Mercia, fighting to avenge their kin and to keep their people free.

1066 Turned Upside Down: Alternative fiction stories by nine authors 

Ever wondered what might have happened if William the Conqueror had been beaten at Hastings? Or if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge? Or if Edward the Confessor had died with an heir ready to take his place? Then here is the perfect set of stories for you. ‘1066 Turned Upside Down’ explores a variety of ways in which the momentous year of 1066 could have played out differently.

Written by nine well-known authors to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the stories will take you on a journey through the wonderful ‘what ifs’ of England’s most famous year in history.

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past.

Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians 
 but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands.

Historically, the records are in two halves, pre- and post-Viking, in the way they have been preserved. Pre-Viking, virtually all the source material was written by the victims, or perceived victims, of Mercian aggression and expansion. Post-Viking, the surviving documents tend to hail from places which were not sacked or burned by the Northmen, particularly from Wessex, the traditional enemy of Mercia. The inclusion of those records here allows for the exploration of Mercia post-924.

Mercia ceased to be a kingdom when Alfred the Great came to power, but its history did not end there. Examining the roles of the great ealdormen in the anti-monastic reaction of the tenth century, through the treachery of Eadric Streona in the eleventh, and the last, brave young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror, this book shows the important role the Mercians played in the forging of the English nation.

Annie Whitehead
Annie is an author and historian, a member of the Royal Historical Society and of the Historical Writers’ Association. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, chronicles the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and her second, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, Cometh the Hour, charts the life of King Penda. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down. She is the recipient of various awards for her novels and has also won awards for her nonfiction essays. She won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in Sep 2018.
Connect with Annie: Website • Blog • Facebook • Twitter.


  1. Thanks so much for hosting me today Mary Anne!!

  2. A really interesting post, Annie. You've whetted my appetite to learn more about Aethelflaed and the Anglo-Saxons.

  3. Very enticing post. I've read a bit about Offa, and would like to know more...

    1. Thanks Tim! Offa is a hard one to pin down - very enigmatic...

  4. Such an interesting post, Annie. I really enjoyed it!

    1. Thanks Mary Anne - and thanks again for hosting me today!

  5. A really interesting post, Annie. The Anglo Saxon period has so much to offer writers and readers alike.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx